William H. Pritchard: On "The Wood-Pile"

The "persona" narratives from the book - "Mending Wall," "After Apple-Picking," and "The Wood-Pile" - also strive for inclusiveness although they are spoken throughout by a voice we are tempted to call "Frost." This voice has no particular back-country identity, nor is it obsessed or limited in its point of view; it seems rather to be exploring nature, other people, ideas, ways of saying things, for the sheer entertainment they can provide. Unlike poems such as "Home Burial" and "A Servant to Servants," which are inclined toward the tragic or the pathetic, nothing "terrible" happens in the personal narratives, nor does some ominous secret lie behind them. In "The Wood-Pile," for example, almost nothing happens at all; its story, its achieved idea or wisdom, the whole air with which it carries itself, is quite unmemorable. A man out walking in a frozen swamp decides to turn back, then decides instead to go farther and see what will happen. He notes a bird in front of him and spends some time musing on what the bird must be thinking, then sees it settle behind a pile of wood. The pile is described so as to bring out the fact that it has been around for some time. With a reflection about whoever it was who left it there, "far from a useful fireplace," the poem concludes. And the reader looks up from the text, wonders if he has missed something, perhaps goes back and reads it again to see if he can catch some meaning which has eluded him. But "The Wood-Pile" remains stubbornly unyielding to any attempt at ransacking it for a meaning not evidently on the surface.

This surface is a busy one, as when the speaker meets the bird: A small bird flew before me. He was careful To put a tree between us when he lighted, And say no word to tell me who he was Who was so foolish as to think what he thought. He thought that I was after him for a feather -- The white one in his tail; like one who takes Everything said as personal to himself. One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.

The bird is teased for its egoism in thinking that the world revolves around his subjective hopes and fears, and his nervousness is amusing because never was there a less predatory or even purposeful figure than the walker in this poem, who early along - in deciding to continue rather than turn back - put it this way: "No, I will go on farther - and we shall see." See what? See things like a bird lighting in a tree, and be free to make up a story about why it doesn't speak, or how jealously protective it is of the white feather in its tail? Being free to "see" means indulging in such harmless playful fantasies the freedom of whose play is a measure of its solitary creation, far from any human or social situation. Perhaps the point of maximum play occurs in the lines about the bird's caution as he lights in the tree and determines to look only: "And say no word to tell me who he was / Who was so foolish as to think what he thought." The monosyllabic tongue-twisting aspect of these lines is effective in mixing up the reader: who is more "foolish," man or bird, and how on earth can one tell?

Then there is the wood-pile itself, a cord of maple, split, piled and measured

                    ... four by four by eight. And not another like it could I see. No runner tracks in this year's snow looped near it. And it was older sure than this year's cutting, Or even last year's or the year's before. The wood was grey and the bark warping off it And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle. What held it, though, on one side was a tree Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, These latter about to fall ...

This is a thoroughly unexciting presentation of what might lay claim to be the world's most unexceptional phenomenon, yet it engages the man enough to occupy him for the remainder of the poem. More interesting than anything it "says" is the way the presentation resists, as solidly as does the sunken woodpile, our readerly efforts to find a message in it, to take it as a symbol for something or other important. In so resisting us, the woodpile confirms the teasing character of the whole poem, always leading us on, promising that around the next corner, past the next tree, we shall see something, if we but have faith to follow the walker: and then, sure enough, there it is - an old woodpile with clematis wound round it, its very situation (its "stake and prop" about to collapse) precarious.

This is all we see, except that Frost moves to reflection, concluding the poem with these lines in which the pile of wood is extended into something more:

I thought that only Someone who lives in turning to fresh tasks Could so forget his handiwork on which He spent himself, the labor of his ax, And leave it there far from a useful fireplace To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

The final line has been rightly admired, but its brilliance almost blinds us to the fact that the reflection which it concludes is in no sense a stunning or profound one. The thought that "someone" who abandoned this pile of wood must be one who "lived in turning to fresh tasks," is certainly uncontroversial and hardly provocative of further speculation. Again the interest lies not in "content" but in the way a sentence develops over seven lines, winding from the "I" to the "someone" and finally to the "handiwork" whose thermal activity is celebrated in the ingenuity of the final three lines. As with other moments in the poem, no great claims are made, no meanings are held out for everyone to use, no praise or blame is assigned to motive or action.

Early in "The Wood-Pile" the walker is surrounded by "tall slim trees / Too much alike to mark or name a place by / So as to say for certain I was here / Or somewhere else . . ." By the poem's end a marking has been taken, a place named, though in a way so fanciful as to establish that it is poetry we are responding to when we try to think of that decaying pile, warming the frozen swamp as best it can.

To alter the walker's final thought: only someone, like a poet, who lives in turning to fresh tropes could write a poem like the one Frost has written here, and it is an appropriate conclusion to what remains the most original, even revolutionary, book he would ever write. We need to recall once more the language Edward Thomas used in defining and in praising it, about how Frost trusted his convictions about the validity of speech in poetry, of sentence sounds employed with "no purpose to serve beyond expressing it, when he has no audience to be bullied or flattered, when he is free, and speech takes one form and no other." Despite the presence of back-country characters and scenes in this "book of people," it is as a book of sentence sounds that it most truly exists, as a triumphant vindication of the poetic theory Frost had designed, and as a monument to how much could be accomplished by trusting to the rendering of speech. At the end of "Home Burial," the wife lashes out at her husband in exasperation: "You - oh, you think the talk is all . . ." But for the composer of these poems, the talk is all, whether that of his imagined characters or of himself speaking aloud.

From Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. Copyright © 1984 by William Pritchard.

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Criticism Overview
Title William H. Pritchard: On "The Wood-Pile" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author William H. Pritchard Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered
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